Jennie Smythe, CEO of Girlilla Marketing in Nashville, underwent a routine mammogram in November 2018 at the Vanderbilt Breast Center. To her surprise, the mother-of-two was asked to come back the next day for a biopsy.
“I remember being in the waiting room and a sign on the wall said that 1 of 8 women would develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime,” Smythe, now 42, told PEOPLE. “There were 30 people in that room. I just never thought I would be one of them.”
Smythe is now one of the more than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. “Getting that mammogram saved my life,” says Smythe, who is an active member of the Country Music Association, CMA Foundation and Music Health Alliance. “Imagine if I didn’t get that mammogram? I would have never felt the mass. What if I had waited another year? The situation could be very different.”
Smythe, who hails from Denver, Colorado, remembers spending most of her childhood outdoors, riding her bike. Her sense of adventure and determination helped her launch her music career at companies like Elektra Entertainment, Disney’s Hollywood Records and YAHOO! Music.
In Nashville, she worked for Warner Bros. Records and Clear Channel before founding Girlilla Marketing in 2008. The company provides digital marketing services for artists like Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack and Rascal Flatts. The company was celebrating ten years of success when Smythe was told she had breast cancer after doctors found a 6 mm mass in her right breast.
“You hear the word cancer and you don’t hear anything after that. I remember asking my doctor over the phone if I was going to die,” Smythe said.
After she put her children, Daphne, now 7, and Chess, now 2, to bed, she called her husband Shannon Houchins. Then, the reality of her situation sunk in and she broke down. “I know how it feels to drop to your knees and weep in a moment of weakness, only to be given more grace and strength than you ever imagined,” she said.
Despite the devastating news, Smythe decided that defeat was not an option. “My job has always been to figure stuff out, so I got a notebook and I started writing everything down,” she said. “I started opening up to a very small amount of people who essentially became my inside circle of fellow breast cancer fighters.”
The earlier breast cancer is detected, the better the chances are for a full recovery. That’s why it’s critical everyone, no matter how much money they have, has access to affordable preventive health care. #BreastCancerAwarenessMonth pic.twitter.com/9x3wG4bcSv— Senator Patty Murray (@PattyMurray) October 19, 2019
In December of 2018, she underwent the first of two failed lumpectomies, and the following February, she began 12 rounds of chemo, ultimately electing to have a double mastectomy, which she believed would give her the greatest chance for survival. Recently, she decided to have reconstruction surgery.
“The past year has taught me that I have to live in the moment. I haven’t had the luxury of spending too much time thinking about ‘what if.’ I’ve just been trying not to die,” she said. “I wish I could tell you that I was brave, and I was a warrior through all of this, but I can’t. I’ve been sick and I’ve been tired and frankly, there were times that I was growing weary of being surrounded by people all of the time, naked and exposed, you know? I mean, there were times when I started going emotionally numb.”
Despite feeling grateful that the cancer is gone from her body, it is inevitably still very much on her mind. “I want to feel normal and I want to spend one minute without thinking of cancer,” she says. “There is a level of anxiety that takes up space in your brain. I mean, it’s a whole new level. You never not worry about cancer.”
Smythe believes her battle against the illness has given her much more empathy. “I look at people and their challenges in a whole new way. The empathy pours out of me,” she said.
In 2019, an estimated 268,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the US, along with 62,930 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer. In addition, 2,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men.
Breast cancer incidence rates in the US began decreasing in 2000, after increasing for the previous two decades. This decrease is believed to be due to the reduced use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by women after the results of a large study called the Women’s Health Initiative were published in 2002. The study suggested a link between HRT and increased breast cancer risk.